Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

It is hard these days to get the ANC and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) to agree on anything.  But the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson has managed it. How?  With a clumsy and largely context-free feature entitled Do white people have a future in South Africa? 

It is a legitimate question to ask, nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid, but the way it is asked and partially answered by Simpson comes in the form of a largely negative narrative, despite his overall conclusion of “yes…but”. Published on the BBC’s website as a written feature and as a video, the thrust of Simpson’s argument is that hundreds of thousands of white South Africans are now poor and that their living standards are falling, the implication being that they are being discriminated against in a black-governed country.  Simpson says they have little chance of employment and many live in squatter camps; he later goes on to talk of the “deeply threatened” white farming community.  The reactions of the governing ANC and the DA have been swift and strong: that this picture is not a true reflection of South Africa.  For once, the press is in line with the government, and the Mail and Guardian has attacked the documentary.

The ANC’s spokesman Keith Khoza said that South Africa “has never been in a situation where whites have been singled out and persecuted.” He added that

“instances of crime and poverty affect all South Africans regardless of the colour of their skin.”

“instances of crime and poverty affect all South Africans regardless of the colour of their skin.” Khoza, in a style typical of the ANC’s attitude towards the press, then went over the top and accused the BBC of suffering from an “apartheid hangover”. The DA issued a statement attacking the feature, saying that “poverty is endemic in this country and we have poor people – not poor whites and poor blacks.  The article and video create the impression that black people don’t suffer in the new South Africa, where they most certainly do.”

They have a point.  While there is some reference in the piece to black unemployment and black poverty, at no point is there a comparison or any attempt to put the plight of poor whites in a wider context. The narrative also misses the point that even under apartheid there were poor whites. I can recall in 1990 seeing a community of homeless, destitute Afrikaners living in and around Joubert Park in central Johannesburg. It is true that the number of poor whites in South Africa has increased and is likely to continue to do so.  But the rate of decline has not been rapid and has clear causes in the apartheid era.

Prior to the National Party (NP) winning the 1948 election, many Afrikaners were poor, denied education and relegated to scratching a living in rural areas or taking on poorly-paid unskilled or semi-skilled manual jobs. The NP changed that and Afrikaners found themselves promoted at the expense of English-speakers – not to mention black, Coloured or Asian people.  They were given preference in public service appointments and even unskilled whites would have supervisory roles or were simply paid better for doing the same jobs as black workers.

That system has gone, and not before time.  But it inevitably means that some whites, especially poorly-qualified Afrikaners who benefitted hugely from apartheid, are worse off.  But even they have not reached the levels of poverty, deprivation and marginalization of poor blacks, of whom there are still countless millions.  John Simpson is right in saying that there are destitute whites, but he can’t agree on the numbers – in the video he says 200,000 and in the feature is says 400,000. And what is his measure for this poverty? How do poor whites compare to poor blacks or Coloureds?  The video shows poor whites in an “informal settlement”.  But this settlement, while sad and poor, is nothing in comparison with the poor black settlements on the edge of major urban areas or the small, scattered and deeply deprived collections of hovels in rural areas.

Khaya Dlanga wrote in the Mail and Guardian that the BBC article featured only poor whites in a country with millions of poor black people. He points out that it failed to mention that white unemployment in South Africa is only 7%, which is lower than rate of unemployment in the majority of European nations, while black unemployment is well above 30%. Dlanga concludes,

“If Simpson wants to talk about who has no place in South Africa, and if the basis of his argument is an economic one, then it is the black person who has no place in South Africa”.

This criticism has a strong basis.  If you look at statistics for South Africa, such as those published last year by the World Bank, they show no evidence of whites being discriminated against or even that South Africans now have an equal opportunity to achieve wealth, which might disadvantage whites in comparison with the past. The figures show that black South Africans are still at greater risk than whites of falling into and remaining in poverty. White household incomes are 7.5 times higher than black household incomes, and black households have more mouths to feed.  Black children are disadvantaged at birth by poverty, have less chance than even poor whites of getting education, and then are four times more likely than whites to be unemployed.

The other key part of the BBC report is the threat posed by crime to white farmers. This threat is very real, and in a country where the police run a huge risk of being killed on the job, white farmers are twice as likely to be murdered than policemen.  There is a huge problem of violent crime throughout South Africa. In rural areas, where poverty is greater even than in cities, wages barely feed families and there has been little redistribution of land to the rural black dwellers robbed of their land by apartheid. Rural crime is a serious problem that the government is unable or unwilling to confront.  It is hardly surprising that there is resentment and that the combination of this and grinding poverty leads to violent crime. One has to add, and I saw this in rural areas of Limpopo province last year, that fierce white racism and contempt for blacks has hardly abated in the twenty years since the end of apartheid. If anything, it has grown, fuelled by anger and fear at the loss of white political hegemony. That contempt and anger is now reciprocated by poor blacks who have seen no benefit from the end of apartheid.

In his report, John Simpson does little to mitigate the white view that this is a concerted attempt to wipe out white farmers; he adds that it is hardly covered in the media outside South Africa.  That is simply wrong. A cursory search on Google throws up thousands of reports about it on news agencies, in newspapers and on radio and TV outside South Africa.  In the scale of world reporting it is not huge, but crime against whites in South Africa is reported far more widely abroad than crime against black South Africans.  A black South Africa is 33 times more likely to be a victim of crime than a white.  Yes, farmers are hit hard by crime, but it is not the attempted genocide that some white South Africans allege. Simpson does not go that far, but he gets it out of proportion, does not provide context and in the video has a maudlin section dealing with the tragic death of a father and son who ran a rural store, replete with sentimental Afrikaner folk music in the background. The impression given is of concerted activity, and no balancing view is given of the poverty and violence suffered by black South Africans in rural areas.

It is not surprising that this report has led to a strong response from the ANC, DA and the press.  Nothing in the report is in itself totally wrong, but claims are not put in context and the report has an air of “this shouldn’t happen to white folks” about it. That does the BBC no favours at a time when its foreign coverage is declining in both quality and quantity and funding for the World Service is shrinking.

That there has been an outcry attests to the importance of the BBC as an international broadcaster and as a source of news, analysis and debate for people around the world, and particularly in Africa and the Commonwealth.   The early 20th century journalist and writer Finlay Peter Dunne wrote that journalism’s role was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That is still a laudable role and journalists should identify and report deprivation and marginalization, but it must be in context and proportion. That seems to be lacking in a report that concludes about South African whites, “Those who fit in and succeed will certainly have a future. As for the rest, there are no guarantees whatsoever.”  What the report crucially misses is that poor black South Africans have historically had deliberate obstacles put in the way of escaping poverty and still have to fight the legacy of white-created deprivation.  No poor South Africans have guarantees, but that is about poverty and unequal distribution of wealth, not about the deliberate impoverishment of whites in a country where money and privilege still talk louder than justice and equality.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Stuides and teaches at the School of International Politics and Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent.  He worked for the BBC for 28 years, with particular expertise on southern Africa.